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‘Houdini’ Haughey Faces New Test : Ireland’s Ex-Prime Minister Battling for His Political Life

Times Staff Writer

Author, lecturer and columnist Conor Cruise O’Brien once cautioned, only half in jest, that before anyone writes the political obituary of Charles Haughey, he had better double-check that the canny Irish politician is actually in the grave with a stake through his heart.

While O’Brien admittedly ranks near the top of the list of Haughey’s detractors, few of any political stripe in Dublin would argue over the basic wisdom of the commentator’s advice.

Forced to formally resign the Irish prime minister’s post last Thursday, Haughey has been scrambling without apparent success ever since to forge a political alliance that would allow him to reclaim the post before a Parliament-imposed 3 p.m. deadline today.

Talks with his Fianna Fail (Soldiers of Destiny) party’s most likely allies, the Progressive Democrats, reportedly collapsed this weekend over the smaller party’s demands for a formal coalition and seats in the Cabinet--an arrangement Haughey has repeatedly rejected.

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It all adds up to perhaps the gravest crisis of his political career, but as his longtime antagonist O’Brien has warned, it’s still too early to count the 63-year-old Haughey out.

‘The Great Survivor’

Known variously as “the Great Survivor” and “the Houdini of Irish Politics,” Haughey is said to be at his toughest when his situation seems most hopeless.

He was clearly not giving up Sunday. First he gave an interview on Irish national radio that was clearly aimed at putting public pressure on rival parties to back him for prime minister in a new minority government. Later Sunday he met with his Cabinet, and this morning he has scheduled a strategy session of Fianna Fail members of Parliament.

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Haughey’s ultimate threat, barring some back-room deal, is to seek dissolution of Parliament and new elections. It would be an unpopular and unpredictable step into the political void, particularly because inconclusive national elections less than three weeks ago caused all the turmoil in the first place.

The Irish Times over the weekend termed the prospect “totally unacceptable” and “intolerable” to the Irish electorate.

Haughey had called last month’s snap election in hopes of gaining a parliamentary majority, something that had eluded him in four previous tries. He has been prime minister three times--most recently from March, 1987, until last Thursday--but always at the head of a minority government.

Move Backfired Badly

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Haughey’s move backfired badly. Instead of gaining the two additional seats it needed, Fianna Fail lost four. It remains the largest of six parties in the Dail (Parliament) and the only one capable of forming a minority government. But when a humiliated Haughey tried to do so last week, his previously more compliant rivals made it clear they would drive a much harder bargain this time.

Haughey balked at their demands, so those same rivals took him down another peg by forcing him into a largely symbolic resignation, albeit one he actively resisted. He remains caretaker prime minister until a new one is elected.

A self-made millionaire who accumulated his money in Dublin real estate before starting a government career, Haughey comes from politically active roots. Both his parents supported the Irish Republican Army against British rule of the country. And his father joined the republican side in the brief but bitter civil war that followed the island’s 1921 partition into today’s independent republic in the south and six, British-ruled counties in the north.

An accountant and lawyer by education, Haughey was quick to forge links with Fianna Fail, which has its roots in the anti-partition side of the civil war. His wife, the former Maureen Lemass, is the daughter of the party’s second leader, and Haughey himself rose swiftly through local government and the Dail to become justice minister in the late 1960s.

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His “Great Survivor” image dates from charges that he was involved in running guns to the beleaguered Roman Catholics of Northern Ireland shortly after the current “troubles” there began in 1969. Haughey was acquitted, but he was forced to resign his Cabinet job. The antipathy between Haughey and O’Brien, who is virulently anti-Republican, is said to stem from this period.

Sufficiently Rehabilitated

By the end of 1979, Haughey was sufficiently rehabilitated to take over both the party and the premiership on the resignation of his predecessor, Jack Lynch.

The gun-running charges and later, unproven allegations that he authorized electronic eavesdropping on the telephones of unfriendly journalists contribute to a reputation of being charming and loyal to his friends but ruthless and vindictive to his enemies.

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“A lot of people believe that to give him something approaching absolute power is a mistake,” said Terence J. Baker, senior research officer at Dublin’s Economic & Social Research Institute, in an interview in Dublin last week.

The Progressive Democratic Party was formed by Fianna Fail dissidents who ran afoul of their former leader.

Haughey can be disarmingly denigrating about himself. “Deep down, I’m a very shallow person,” he once remarked. He is said to read little, and his attachment to Ireland is such that he reputedly never vacations abroad.

Respiratory Condition

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Haughey was seriously ill late last year and still carries an inhaler to aid with a respiratory condition. Both the Progressive Democrats and Fine Gael (Sons of the Gael), the second-largest party in the Dail, have indicated they would be a lot more willing to back a minority Fianna Fail government if it was headed by somebody other than Haughey.

However, noted University College-Dublin political scientist Brian Farrell, even if Haughey was willing to step aside, “there isn’t any obvious successor” within his party.

In Sunday’s nationally broadcast radio interview, meanwhile, Haughey flatly rejected the option. “I think my party would not tolerate that,” he said. “We are a proud national party.”

The only options if the Dail fails to support him as prime minister today, Haughey added, are new elections or yet another Parliament adjournment for further negotiations.

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“There is still time to discuss and negotiate,” he said. “I am making an all-out endeavor to provide the country with a government because that’s what the country needs and that’s what the people want.”

All-out endeavor or not, the “Great Survivor” demonstrated his populist touch when, after his interview, he took the afternoon off to go to Curragh, about 20 miles outside of Dublin, for the annual running of the Irish Derby.


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